Proof: Babies can be jerks

Those mean girls might have been mean infants too, new research says

(Image credit: Thinkstock)

The question: It's human nature to want to hang out with people you have things in common with. ("You like chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream? So do I! Let's eat chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream together!") On the one hand, this trait is a positive one, since it helps people form social bonds. On the other, those shared interests can, at the very least, lead to the formation of cliques that exclude others for their differences. Worse yet, groups may reach the point at which they applaud when harm comes to outsiders — just think of the mean girls in high school who revel in others' pain. Researchers already knew, thanks to previous studies, that babies, like adults, had the propensity to like babies similar to them, gravitating toward those with the same taste in food or toys. But scientists wanted to examine whether the dark side of social identification was prevalent in babies as well. Do the roots of malevolent social biases take hold in infancy?

How it was tested: Researchers recruited 9- and- 14-month-old babies for two separate studies. First, the infants' preference for green beans or graham crackers was established. Then the babies watched a series of puppet shows that featured a graham cracker-liking puppet and a green bean-liking puppet alternately being helped and harmed by other puppets. Finally, the babies chose between the helper puppet or the harming puppet.

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Lauren Hansen

Lauren Hansen produces The Week’s podcasts and videos and edits the photo blog, Captured. She also manages the production of the magazine's iPad app. A graduate of Kenyon College and Northwestern University, she previously worked at the BBC and Frontline. She knows a thing or two about pretty pictures and cute puppies, both of which she tweets about @mylaurenhansen.